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Rural aging a big issue in W.Va.

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

West Virginia's population is getting older.

The aging trend isn't just unique to our state. In fact, it is happening worldwide and has significant implications, especially in rural areas.

"Sixty percent of the world's population over age 60 lives in rural areas," said Robert M. D'Alessandri, M.D., vice president of the West Virginia University Health Sciences Center, which houses the Center On Aging.

The rural aging phenomenon is especially relevant for West Virginia, since it is the second most rural state in the country, D'Alessandri said.

In West Virginia in 1998, there were 274,689 people aged 65 or older, or 15.2 percent, of the state's population, according to national statistics from Census data.

In comparison, in the United States in 1998 there were 34.4 million people aged 65 or older or 12.7 percent of the nation's total population, according to statistics.

In other words, West Virginia's percentage of elderly is higher than the national average.

"Aging in rural communities is a major issue," D'Alessandri said.

One of the components that is affecting seniors in rural areas is the migration of young adults to urban areas to seek employment.

As a result, the elderly are often left behind with limited access to transportation and health care facilities, he said.

Another implication of the migration is the reduced contact between seniors and their grandchildren. "There is a widening intergenerational gap between our elders and our youth," D'Alessandri said.

Bill and Caroline Schetzel of Clarksburg are part of that group of seniors whose children have left for another state.

Their son, Douglas, moved to Virginia, but the Schetzels keep in touch with him and their three grandchildren every Sunday by telephone. Maintaining a close relationship with their family is important, Caroline said.

However, for many families, the gap leads to the younger generation not appreciating their elders and viewing them as non-contributors, D'Alessandri said.

Older persons can be valuable resources in the community, he added. "Not only are people living longer, but the percentage that are disabled has been declining in the last 10 years," he said. "That means rural elders can contribute and want to."

Lucille Ellis knows better than anyone the contributions that seniors can make to the community. The active 84-year-old is the volunteer coordinator at United Hospital Center in Clarksburg. She works with more than 150 volunteers, of which 75 percent are over the age of 65. They dedicate their time in various areas of the hospital, from medical records to the gift shop, Ellis said.

Many of the senior volunteers have children who have moved away and need something to occupy their time, Ellis said. "I have many retirees who come in and say, 'I have to do something.' I'm glad they come because we need them. They feel they are giving back to society," she said.

Ellis, a former Harrison County school teacher for 30 years, has been volunteering for the last 25 years. She believes staying active is the key to happiness. "It is something to keep me going. Keeping busy is what keeps you young. It is the only way to stay healthy," she said.

The growing numbers of older Americans are affecting products, services, health care, and politics.

"Senior citizens have a voice in politics," said 79-year-old Bill Schetzel.

"I encourage everyone to vote every time," he said.

The Schetzels visit the Harrison County Senior Center every week to see friends, play bridge and get some exercise.

Virginia Koontz, 95, of Clarksburg is grateful for the senior center.

"It is a place we can get together and enjoy ourselves," she said.

Staying active is important to Koontz. "I can't give up. As long as I keep going, I am all right," she said.

Poverty is an added complication for older individuals. West Virginia ranked ninth among states for the highest poverty rates among the elderly from 1995-1997, said Tom Otwell, American Association of Retired Persons Spokesman.

The rapid growth of the senior population won't be slowing down anytime soon. In the next 10 years, the life expectancy will be 85 for women and 80 for men, D'Alessandri said.

With that growing population also comes the needs for improved health and social services for seniors. "We need to deal with it and care for the elderly," D'Alessandri said.

The WVU Center On Aging can provide information and services to seniors through their educational unit, community services and outreach program.

The outreach program offers a statewide information referral system to provide information on the types of services available for seniors in each county.

"If someone lives in California and their mother still lives in West Virginia, they can call for assistance to see the types of services available she might need such as meals or transportation," said Anne Harmon, of the outreach program.

The center also offers a continuing education program, the Appalachian Life Long Learners. The program is for people 55 and over and provides a variety of courses in subjects like opera, glass decorating and feminism.

The semesters are three- to six-week terms. "The participants don't take tests. It is just for the sheer enjoyment of learning," Harmon said.

Harmon recommends finding out what is available at the Center on Aging. "It is a great program with wonderful resources. We would like people to use them," she said.

The Center On Aging can be contacted for more information at (304) 293-2968.

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1443.

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